When I entered the world of living with bipolar disorder it took me many years to learn about the illness. Sometimes the descriptions of the symptoms I would read about would not apply to me, so I never could really get a handle on how the illness was alive and well inside of my brain. I had a hard time determining how bipolar disorder was affecting my day-to-day living. Until it became so debilitating that it was hard to ignore the obvious.
This is the thing about mental illness—it is complex to diagnosis, difficult to live with, and hard to explain to other people who have no idea what it is like to live in the world when you struggle with a mental illness.
But some of us have a need and desire to educate the general population about various disorders. Yet we are sometimes afraid to talk about our mental illness for fear we will be discriminated against or thought less of because we live with these disorders. Wow! Is it any wonder that many of us live in isolation after we become ill? It’s just not fair.
I don’t know a great deal about other mental illnesses but I do know a fair amount about bipolar disorder. I have numerous experiences on both sides of the fence, as a caregiver and as a person who lives with the illness. I know enough to have gained a tremendous amount of respect for this mysterious illness that impacts my brain. It can bring me to my knees with emotional pain with a depressive episode or it can make me so manic I can’t sit still. Whatever end of the spectrum I am fighting I am always on the lookout for the next major episode. I don’t get a chance to relax and chalk up my limited amount of sleep to “too many things on my mind.” Instead I have to monitor myself and ask the question, “Am I getting manic again? Should I call my doctor?”
In between my hypervigilance I try to live a “normal” life. I take care of my new adopted puppy, cut the grass, go to the grocery store and work a part-time job.
I’m looking forward to an upcoming trip to Washington, D.C. where I will attend the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) national conference. When I go there I am planning on joining other members in a National Action Day. This is where we will go to Capitol Hill and tell our story to our congressional members and ask them to support mental health services. It is an opportunity to share in two minutes what has affected me my entire life. I hope I can articulate what it’s like to have a mental illness disrupt your life. Then I want to explain how with proper treatment and a lot of hard work how some of us can and do recover.
We never get “cured” but we go on and live our lives in spite of the enormous challenges we have been given. We move on and learn to live our lives in the world of mental illness. It’s not always full of pain and sorrow. Sometimes it simply becomes the “way it just is.” I think you just get used to the struggle.
I recently wrote my bipolar journey for Mental Health Talk. Trish, the founder of the site has lots of opportunity for those people who are living with a Mental Illness to share their stories.
If you are interested in reading about my journey from being an Olympian to getting diagnosed with bipolar disorder here is the link to Mental Health Talk:
I would also encourage people who want to share their stories get in contact with Trish. The more people who share the better opportunity we all have to continue to knock down stigma and to let others know they are not alone in this battle.
Disclosing you have a mental illness is a very tough decision. There are so many issues associated with telling even your friends and family, much less being open about your illness in a public forum, like social media. From my viewpoint if we are to actively change the stigma associated with mental illness it is important for those of us who live with mental illness to feel comfortable in disclosing it.
I recently read an acticle about disclosing your mental illness diagnosis on-line. The author was an advocate, but chooses to blog and advocate anonymously. I have no problem with her choice, but I wonder about the impact you can make as an advocate living anonymously? Isn’t it important to demonstrate that many people living with serious mental illness can recover and contribute to society?
When writing my blog I decided it was important for me to feel comfortable being completely open and honest about who I am. I wanted people to know I was not ashamed for having a mental illness. In fact, I have worked very hard to live my life without living in shame for an illness I did not ask for and believe is no different than a physical illness from that standpoint.
But then I started thinking about all the reasons why people could judge me and look at me differently because I live with bipolar disorder. I thought about the stigma associated with the illness and how people may judge my competency without ever talking to me or reading anything I may write. I began to fall into the trap of worrying about things that I cannot control. I worked through my fears and doubts and moved forward with disclosure in a well thought out way.
For all the reasons why you should never disclose your mental health issues, there are equally a number of reasons why it is a good idea for at least people close to you to know. I was always afraid people would not be my friend if they knew about my condition. The truth is some people didn’t want to be friends with someone who had a mental illness, as if I had some kind of contagious disease. But others seemed to accept it and offer love and support.
After deciding I was going to live my dream and become a Mental Health Advocate, I put a great deal of thought into disclosing my illness. My focus is on raising awareness and creating opportunities to have a dialogue about mental illness so that others may understand. I wanted to jump on the band wagon and help eliminate stigma. I really felt like if people knew I was an Olympic Athlete who was affected by a mental illness they could see that it does not matter what your socio-economic status is or what parade you may have walked in, mental illness can affect anyone. It also helps other people who are suffering with the illness to know someone else who is living with it.
So—for all these reasons I felt like it was a good idea to disclose my illness. I let my Facebook friends know the other day on a status update that I was a Mental Health Advocate, writer and speaker and I lived with Bipolar Disorder. The support I received touched my heart and gave me more strength to keep on walking down the disclosure path.
I can’t tell you what is right for you, but I can say I feel empowered to share my journey. And I am glad I no longer hang my head in fear or shame.